I met Amelie Castel at the monthly Friday Potluck social at the NuNu Arts and Culture Collective in Arnaudville.

Castel was in town with a delegation from the French government’s Ministry of Sport for the 2019 Lafayette Petanque Festival, with former world champ Bernard Champey. The tourney is going on this weekend at Girard Park.

I’d heard she was a world accordion champion, and she was in 2003. Then I learned her English was as good as my French, which is well below par bon.

Still, I had to ask, through Kevin Domingue, who served as a translator, if she played Cajun, zydeco or Creole music in France. Castel said she hadn’t because she wanted to see the music first live before trying.

Then she was ushered away to play French accordion music, and, I’ve got to tell you, the house was mesmerized.

A couple of days after our encounter, as I wondered if she’d at least heard our local music on recordings, I saw her killing it with Soul Creole on Facebook as she came, she saw and she conquered.

“That was quite the coup for us,” Mavis Fruge, co-coordinator of the Jacques Arnaud French Studies Collective with Amanda Lafleur said Monday afternoon along the Bayou Teche in Breaux Bridge. “You know we were delighted to have her, and she certainly was very entertaining. Very, very talented.

“More and more, NuNu’s has really changed Arnaudville. NuNu’s has become the cultural hub of that little community.”

When I ran into them at Parc des Ponts, Fruge and LaFleur had just left Lake Martin where Cory Werk and his canoes, with Catahoula's Cleveland “Captain Cleve” Bergeron leading a French-only speaking tour with students from the University of Minnesota.

The students are in week-long French Immersion-type program where only French is spoken and are staying in Arnaudville in cottages moved and overhauled by Tony Adrian.

Activities have included Bourré with locals and the canoe trip. Also scheduled are Cajun/zydeco dance lessons with Harold Bernard and crawfishing “the way we used to go crawfishing with poles,” LaFleur said. They’ll also make local products, including pralines with Fruge, couche-couche with Rebecca Henry in Opelousas; alligator garfish scale jewelry with Jamie Muster, a Houma Indian; Mardi Gras hats with Brenda Mouet; dye Easter eggs “the old-fashioned way with silk fabric,” and participate in an Easter egg pacque at a local nursing home.

“The idea is hands-on for students, particularly, who are at an intermediate level who have some knowledge of French, but they haven’t got comfortable speaking yet,” LaFleur said. “So, if you force them to speak for five days, they’re going to get over the hump.”

The students are basically participating in everyday life in Cajun and Creole country. All of the students are enrolled in a class this semester on French in Louisiana, he said.

“So they’re all French majors and minors,” said Brian Barnett, director of Language Instruction in French, in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Minnesota. “A lot of people that study French, they don’t see the relevance. So being able to show that there are communities that are still around on the contemporary side where French can be used. So this is a good place for students to come down so then they get to use their French within the United States.”

Barnett, who lived in Lafayette for a year and visited for 10 years, brought other students to the area and said locals, too, get something out of their visit.

“I just see more confidence in the French speakers in the locals because I think more people that come down from the outside shows that there’s interest,” he said. “And then the people that I bring, they get a lot out of it as well. So I see benefits to both.”

Fruge said at NuNu’s, she encourages the locals “to speak French when we’re just sitting around visiting,” she said. “We need to do this all the time, not just when we have visitors. We need to make that conscious effort. If we’re going to sell this to the world, we need to live it on a daily basis.”

Fruge and others are behind converting the old St. Luke’s Hospital into a French Immersion Center in Arnaudville. She recalled local French speakers from a generation dismissing their own French language capabilities.

“I don’t want to hear that ever again,” Fruge said. “Stop saying that. What we speak is a valid French. It’s ours. We own it.”

Fruge, LaFleur, Ardian, NuNu’s George Marks and others are behind are trying to cover all the bases related to keeping an actual living culture alive through tourism, business and the arts.

“People come here because they want part of this,” said Fruge. “They want, I don’t know — there’s something magic about Bayou Teche water, I think. It’s brown like gumbo.”

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